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Straight Up Conversation: Bridge in Nigeria Chief Oladapo Olarinmoye

Oladapo Olarinmoye is managing director of Nigeria for Bridge International Academies. Over the last decade, Bridge has helped educate half a million children worldwide living in extreme poverty. In Nigeria's Edo State, where 60 percent live below the poverty line, Bridge is upskilling the teachers of around 300,000 children in 1,500 schools over four years, a rate of scaling which may be unprecedented in African history. Oladapo has decades of operational management experience in Nigeria and has served on primary school boards in Lagos. I recently talked with him about what Bridge is doing in Nigeria, and here's what he said. 

Rick Hess: So, what is Bridge International Academies?

Oladapo Olarinmoye: Bridge International Academies is a social enterprise working to help bring quality, life-changing education to children in low- and middle-income countries. Over the last ten years, Bridge has helped to educate half a million children in communities living on less than $2 per person per day, which the World Bank says is extreme poverty. We run or support over 1,200 primary and nursery schools in Kenya, Uganda, Liberia, Nigeria, and India, the majority being public schools with government teachers. Globally, we are the largest cloud-powered education social enterprise in the world focused on improving children's learning outcomes in impoverished communities.

Rick: And more specifically, what is Bridge doing in Nigeria?

Oladapo: Bridge opened its first two schools in Nigeria in 2015. Today, we operate or support schools in four states in Nigeria: Lagos, Osun, Borno, and Edo, and each state uses a different operating model. In Lagos and Osun, we run low-cost community schools for parents directly. In Borno, a tripartite partnership with the Borno state government and the Nigerian Stock Exchange supports a model government nursery and primary school. In Edo, as technical partners in the statewide public sector education transformation program that is being spearheaded by the governor of Edo State. That means teacher training, better resources, classroom management, and a whole range of other support, which I'll go into later on.

Rick: For context, can you describe the typical school in Nigeria?

Oladapo: Nigeria has the most out-of-school children in the world, so there is a significant challenge here to transform and improve an entire sector. Schools and education vary massively across our large country, from elite and expensive private schools, to some children being taught under a tree in remote villages. Class sizes can be anywhere between over a hundred to just a handful. As you can imagine, teaching quality fluctuates enormously. In Nigeria and throughout sub-Saharan Africa, teachers tend to be left isolated and alone once they are trained, especially in remote and rural areas. Some teach in overcrowded classrooms, with limited or no textbooks or teaching resources, and many struggle to understand the content they are themselves teaching. They are often in remote classrooms in far-flung communities or settlements requiring many hours of travel across difficult terrain to reach the nearest city. Electricity is intermittent.

Rick: Remarkable. In that kind of environment, what do Bridge schools look like? And how do you support the government schools?

Oladapo: As I said, Bridge has many different types of schools in our network, but generally they are either government schools supported by Bridge or our own community schools. Common across both types is our digital support for teachers. Our technology platform is designed for low infrastructure environments and operates using intermittent 2G mobile signal, which is ubiquitous in 98 percent of the world. To focus particularly on Edo in Nigeria, these are government schools where government teachers are delivering the local Nigerian curriculum. We are supporting the Edo State government to transform teaching and learning and deliver qualitative and quantitative learning outcomes. The government's program is called EdoBEST. It aims to transform teaching and learning in all 1,500 public primary and junior secondary schools in the state, partially through using the non-state actors. It will see 15,000 government teachers upskilled and impact 300,000 children.

Rick: And what does the training for Edo teachers look like?

Oladapo: The training is focused on helping teachers use a modern child-centered teaching philosophy, best practice classroom management techniques, and content and grade level aligned textbooks. Plus, the use of technology to support teachers with teaching guides based on the national curriculum. The training program takes novice and experienced teachers and trains and empowers them to create positive learning environments for children. Once the initial training is complete, teachers are then placed at the center of an ongoing human support network which focuses on regular training, coaching, and development. The training is delivered by local Nigerian education experts.

Rick: You mentioned that technology helps to support teachers with teaching guides. Can you say a bit more about the role that technology plays in all this?

Oladapo: Yes, it's only part of our system, but it's an important part. Basically, teachers are using handheld devices, which are e-readers, to regularly download lesson guides for their classes. Direct instruction, especially in countries like Nigeria, has been shown to improve learning outcomes. The way it works is that the teacher content we have in the cloud is continually refined in the light of feedback, observations, tests, and so on. And of course, this all follows the local Nigerian curriculum. Through the guide, each teacher is able to use the best practice pedagogical approach to teaching each piece of content, and, in the context of communities I've described, this is phenomenal. The technology also tracks attendance and performance of both teachers and students so on top of the direct support, this technology creates a window into every school and class for the regional education board, so they know exactly what is happening in near real time at a micro and macro level. That's a real plus for education administrators at the Ministry of Education, who are wanting to understand exactly what is happening in their classrooms and to be able to steer policy using evidence-based approaches.

Rick: How much does all of this cost? Obviously, Nigeria isn't wealthy. Given that, can you say a bit about the financial model, tuition, and how you're able to make this work?

Oladapo: I think that's more a question for the state governments, but the Edo governor has gone on record to say he is spending 6 billion Naira, just over $16 million, on EdoBEST overall, of which teacher training is only one of the five program pillars. Of course, they are public schools so they are free for parents. However, what I can talk about is Bridge overall which is designed to be sustainable; that means it must be deliverable within existing national budgets or in the case of community schools, that low tuition fees can cover the cost of the school. The schools need to ultimately be able to run without additional financial support—like grants, or aid—or they will never be a long term solution. Too often the conversation becomes one of "more money" rather than how can existing funds be used more effectively. We aim to deliver a high quality education for $50 a year per child when operating at scale; and when you think that in the US you spend $9,000 a child on average—that's remarkable.

Rick: A recent UNESCO report asserts that by 2030, one in six children globally will still be out of school, and that a six-fold increase in financial aid is needed from donors such as USAID. What are your thoughts on that?

Oladapo: UNESCO—and others—presuppose that the way to increase quality education in countries like mine is through increased aid. We know this doesn't work long term and hasn't worked effectively. We need sustainable locally led innovations focused on outcomes. The World Bank, Brookings, USAID, and others have all argued that non-state actors should be increasingly engaged to improve education in countries like Nigeria. Looking to aid as the top solution simply perpetuates a model that has failed to significantly improve learning outcomes for decades. Advocating a model where countries like Nigeria have to rely on US taxpayers and others is not a sustainable solution, for either party. The global community should be looking at places like Edo where large-scale public-sector transformation is taking place in a sustainable way and, importantly, without aid.

Rick: Has there been pushback about an international organization coming in to "fix" Nigeria's schools?

Oladapo: It's important to understand that EdoBEST is a Nigerian program, designed by a Nigerian governor and spearheaded by the state authority in charge of public primary education. That is what makes it so exciting; it's not an international program. The EdoSUBEB [State Universal Basic Education Board] implementation team in Edo State is staffed entirely by Nigerians, largely from Edo State themselves. Separately, Bridge is an African social enterprise headquartered in Nairobi.

Rick: Have there been any studies or evaluations of the outcomes so far? What do they show?

Oladapo: So far there are two studies to look at when it comes to our impact in Nigeria. First, a study of 30 EdoBEST pilot schools in the first term of the program in summer 2018 showed better learning gains for children. This was 30 control schools compared to 30 reformed schools. The study revealed that EdoBEST pupils learned more, spent more time learning, worked harder, and experienced a more positive classroom environment. Impressively, girls in EdoBEST schools outperformed boys. The initial analysis of boys and girls suggests that being in an EdoBEST school equates to nearly three-quarters of a year more math instruction and nearly two-thirds of a year more literacy instruction compared to a traditional Edo primary school. I'm excited about that because that study was at an early stage so I think the strong results are even more encouraging.

Rick: And the other study?

Oladapo: The Bridge approach in Lagos, Nigeria, was also the subject of a DFID [Department for International Development] study which was also published in 2018 and conducted by Oxford Policy Management. The report showed that there was equity of learning in Bridge schools, meaning whatever background a child had, they were all experiencing strong learning outcomes. There was no achievement gap. The findings contradict decades of educational research, from Coleman's landmark 1966 study of academic outcomes among US students to the OECD's 2016 global study of excellence and equity in education, asserting family background matters more, perhaps much more, than the differences between the schools students attend. The DFID survey study looked at 37 Bridge schools, 38 government schools, and 44 other low-fee schools. The report said that "Students from better socioeconomic backgrounds have higher learning achievement in private and public schools, but not at Bridge schools." We were excited to have more independent evidence that we are closing the achievement gap between more and less privileged students. We believe it is directly related to the fact that our teaching methods intentionally support all students and not just the students who begin school with the greatest advantages. Additionally, the newly released federal common entrance exam results have seen Bridge children from some of the most impoverished communities in Lagos excel, placing them among the country's top performers and giving them access to some of the best secondary schools in Nigeria. 

Rick: Can you talk a bit about the limits of this research?

Oladapo: The Edo research was at a very early stage in the program, so the government is looking into how the progress can be assessed on a wider and longer remit. Obviously, the DFID-backed study was focused on our community schools in Lagos, not on Edo. But I think it's still relevant because the teaching techniques and classroom management approach being used in Edo are the same as in Lagos. Outside of that it ties into the rest of the independent evidence emerging across Bridge. In Kenya, our students have sat for the national primary exit exam for four consecutive years and outperformed the national average every year—in 2018, by 12 percentage points: a difference of 0.19 standard deviations. In Uganda, the same is true over two years and in 2018 our schools overturned a national trend which traditionally sees boys outperforming girls. In Liberia, there is an RCT conducted by IPA and CGD, which is due to publish shortly and which saw a 60 percent increase in learning in the first year. As we consider learning a science, there is also a whole range of EGRA [early grade reading assessment], EGMA [early grade math assessment], and internal M&E [monitoring and evaluation] taking place all the time. Plus, the Bridge Learning Lab has us partnering with top US universities and academics—among others—studying how to improve aspects of learning. So, while we are excited about the evidence emerging in Nigeria, this is against a backdrop of evidence that already exists about the efficacy of Bridge elsewhere.

Rick: Your website says the governor's goal in Edo is "transforming learning outcomes for around 300,000 children in 1,500 schools over a four year period." His entire public primary school system. Your website also notes this scaling speed "may be unprecedented" in African history. How close do you think the government is to that goal—in terms of the number of students and schools?

Oladapo: It's very close. Across Edo, about 12,000 teachers have already been up-skilled and around 270,000 children are experiencing the benefits in their classroom right now. I think it's noteworthy that since this project in Edo started with about 20,000 children—some of them were out of school altogether—kids in private schools have joined these government schools—so people are opting in. Of course, there is more incentive to go to school and for parents to ensure their children are in school if learning is genuinely taking place. However, it is really the time scale that is most impressive as all this has happened in about 14 months. Today there are 929 public primary schools, out of 1,117, in the program. More broadly, Bridge's goal is to offer millions of children in underserved communities a life-changing education and we are well on the way to doing that.

Rick: As you know, plenty of promising pilots disappoint as they've gone to scale—and you all are going for a truly massive scale. How are you thinking about that challenge and what steps are you taking that will help maintain quality?

Oladapo: We—and all education actors—should only think in terms of scale because there are about 600 million children globally either out of school or in school and not learning. In Edo, the government has teams focused on maintaining the continuous improvement of teachers, over the whole four-year period. So it's not a case of putting them through the training and then leaving them alone. No, we are in the classrooms supporting the teachers so we can give them constructive feedback and continuous professional development through technology, quality assurance field officers, and learning and development coaches. This is alongside the constant monitoring, tracking, and iterating that the data collated by the technology platform enable. Sustainability is also factored into the administration as the system is embedded with a knowledge and skills transfer strategy. This will not only engender ownership, but will build internal capacity for continuity.

Rick: Last question. I'm curious, what are one or two lessons that you think US policymakers or educators can take from your work?

Oladapo: EdoBEST challenges the commonly held belief that public sector transformation is necessarily a slow and cumbersome process. It proves that with strong political leadership and a desire to effect quick change through utilizing private sector experience, transformation at scale is possible. The global education crisis is increasingly relevant to the US. This lack of learning for children in low- and middle-income countries is one of the root causes of conflict, inter-generational poverty, political instability, and poor health. Unless sustainable and long-term solutions are found, USAID and subsequently the US taxpayers, along with the broader international donor and aid agency community, will have to continue to pour money into developing countries' education systems. We have seen this shift taking place toward the private sector through things like USAID's new private sector strategy and the World Bank's Inaugural Learning to Realise Education report. Plus we have just seen it supported by the American public in polling for the second consecutive year. What is happening in Nigeria is evidence at scale that this approach can work in classrooms and across public systems in states and even countries.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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